2012 was the year that indie finally died. It was a slow demise, not so much tragic as pathetic; a gentle slide into senility, punctuated by death rattles that sounded very much like cassette-only EPs.
Critiques of guitar music in 2012 have invariably focused on its tendency for throwback, but indie, in all its permutations (the vast majority of which involve boys (almost always boys) with guitars), has always been characterised by its rearguard nature. It seldom looks forward without first taking a lengthy glance over its shoulder, surveying the landscape from which it emerged. In fact, it seldom looks forward.
This retromanic character has been the subject of endless conversation since the publication of Simon Reynolds’ most recent book. Retromania set out to explain “pop culture’s addiction to its own past,” armed with a vague sense of unease about iPods and a passing acquaintance with critical theory, and ended up defining the terms of the discussion for the next year and half. But the past twelve months have demonstrated that retromania is too blunt an instrument to really tackle the problem of mainstream guitar music. A quick turn around London’s dive venues (many of which are now firm establishment fixtures thanks, in great part, to indie’s success in the early 2000s) reveals something far more complicated than Reynolds’ reductive analysis suggests.
The heyday of the straight-up MC5 rip-off or the Gang Of Four tribute are, thank God, seemingly over. Similitude is no longer the marker of authenticity. It’s no longer adequate to say “Splashh sound like Dinosaur Jr.,” or “Peace sound like a shitter Happy Mondays,” or “Palma Violets long more than anything even to sound like a shit tribute to a shit tribute to The Clash.” Straight retro mimesis seems to be over – and it has been replaced, fittingly enough, by what we might call a New Retro: a more complex aesthetic that reflects a generation’s confusion. Individually these bands are less than worthless. Together, though, they mean something. And that thing is not pleasant.
The temporal remains indie’s key concern. But while in the past it was all about the past, today it’s about neither past nor future, but rather about negating time altogether – about wrenching itself into timelessness. When yet another band pitches up in denim and tie-dye, their intention is not just to flick back the calendar to the mid ‘90s. Instead they are displaying the signifiers they have self-consciously accreted, the ultimate goal of the process being not the production of new (or old) music but the production of a timeless affect. They want to make you feel a certain way – the way that they feel, the way their friends feel. It’s something close to melancholy, but notably more violent. It’s a generational pall.
Indie is no longer content to simply bolt together old periods and call them ‘now’, and we can see this in part as an attempt to reclaim narrative control. The New Retro is being played by middle class kids who felt they had been promised something. They are resolutely not the people who are suffering most as the social fissures widen, but despite this they tend to have seen a major difference between their visions for their life and their lived experience. They reached their future and, waddya know, it really wasn’t what they’d been told to expect.
So my generation has given up its faith in the notion of ‘future’ altogether. The myth of linear progress, trending ever upwards, tilting ever forward, has been comprehensively destroyed. “No future” retroactively became the slogan under which punk operated, but those two words have never carried as much meaning as they do for those who find themselves under the age of 30 today. We missed the long boom. Ours is the first generation in modern history for which peacetime life will be worse than it was for their parents.
And yet the New Retro crowd are unwilling to fully embrace the past either, understanding that you cannot happily immerse yourself in any specific time period if you have lost your faith in time itself. The bittersweet gluttony of the ‘90s was predicated on the idea either that the boom would last forever, or that we’d better have a fuck-off party before it finished. Now the boom is over, and the after-image of that party can only ever seem dirty.
So indie no longer has confidence in the past on which it has always relied, but finds itself unable to stop mining that past for the symbols it think it needs in order to explain its sadness, simply because it is so creatively exhausted that it cannot make its own. It is in limbo, half shorn of its umbilical link to the thing that simultaneously feeds and kills it.
Meanwhile it has proven itself entirely incapable of imagining what comes next. We are being buffeted by the most significant events in two generations, and these bands are unwilling or unable to engage with them on a level more sophisticated than that of blank dysphoria. Today more than ever, music should function as a cipher for the riddle of what it means to live here, now. Indie can’t survive its inability to recognise this, nor should it.
In 2013, then, we need artists with the ability to turn their gaze not backwards and not even forwards, but rather outwards. Valuable new movements will come only from an interrogation of the sorry state in which we find ourselves – an interrogation that acknowledges our dysphoria but which is willing to push through it, ready to develop the language we need in order to properly articulate our condition. Indie has collapsed under the weight of its own solipsism. Its death is long overdue.